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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another dimension of Orwell's "1984", 15 Jan. 2013
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For several years now I have been researching, on and off, the history of George Orwell's "1984". After an original avalanche of facts and details that lasted for a couple of years, as time passed by, the informational air I was breathing became thinner and thinner. It was getting more and more difficult to find new angles, biases and small biographical "trivia" that sometimes change the whole picture radically.
And then I came across this little book of memories about Sonia Brownell, Orwell's widow. It turned out to be a real feast. I just started to read it, and after only a few pages, it felt immediately like I was back in my very early days of research, every chapter had something new and exciting to offer. I loved every single moment of the few hours it took me to complete the first reading. My first reaction: this book should have been written, published and circulated as widely as possible a long time ago.
Of course, those who don't have a love affair with Orwell's heritage may disagree. But those of you who do -- and if you haven't yet -- go and buy this book. It's most definitely worth it. There will be a delightful bonus too: you'll be introduced to a gem of a charmingly free-spirited girl! Because that's what Sonia Brownell had always been.

P.S. And yes, all praise possible must go to Hilary Spurling for being so remarkably loyal to her friend!
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Girl from the Fiction Department, 25 Feb. 2015
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell (Paperback)
In her preface of 'The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell' Hilary Spurling tells us that Sonia, the widow of George Orwell, was depicted as "heartless, greedy and manipulative" in Michael Shelden's 'Orwell. The Authorised Biography' - a portrayal which Ms Spurling felt was based on ignorance, misconception and distortion. In this brief, but interesting biography of Sonia, Hilary Spurling has set out with the intention to dispel the myth of the cold and grasping widow Orwell, and also to explain why some people may have found Sonia a difficult and rather daunting character.

Sonia Brownell was born in India in 1918, but was only four months old, and her sister, Bay, only four years old, when their father died from unstated causes (probably a 'hushed up' suicide). Both sisters were marked for ever by this early calamity and Sonia sadly never really bonded with her mother, who remarried one year after her first husband's death. The marriage was not a success and by the time Sonia was eight, her stepfather had become an alcoholic and was forced to resign from his job. The family came to England, but by 1930, Sonia's mother had had enough and she walked out on her husband and filed for divorce. Sonia was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart (the boarding school that Antonia Frost attended and barely disguised in her novel 'Frost in May') which, we learn, was "a battlefield for Sonia and she emerged from it with a raging scorn." Sonia left the school in 1935 and went off eagerly to Switzerland for a year to improve her French; however her year abroad was ruined when a boat she was sailing in with three other teenagers, capsized and she was the only survivor. Feeling guilty for not being able to save her companions (one of whom she had to struggle to free herself from his clutches otherwise she too would have drowned) Sonia returned home, where she recovered physically - but emotionally, we are told, nothing was ever the same again.

After taking a secretarial course, Sonia found a room near the Euston Road and became friendly with Dylan Thomas's girlfriend, Caitlin Macnamara, and Augustus John's daughter, Vivien; she also got to know the artists from the Euston Road Art School: Lawrence Gowing, Graham Bell, Victor Pasmore and also William Coldstream, with whom she had an affair. Through her friendship with the Euston Road artists, Sonia came into the orbit of Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly, and when they started a new literary magazine called 'Horizon' in 1940, Sonia helped out by typing and running errands and, later, writing reviews - she did leave to do war work, but returned to the magazine in 1945 as editorial secretary, and she soon made her mark. Intelligent, beautiful and very good at her job, Sonia was soon mingling with well-known writers and artists such as: Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Marguerite Duras (who became her friend for life) George Orwell and Ivy Compton-Burnett, to name just a few. George Orwell was so taken with her that he proposed to her and after Sonia turned him down, he used her as the model for the character Julia in his novel: Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a failed love affair with married Frenchman Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Orwell becoming hospitalised with worsening tuberculosis, Sonia agreed to marry the now fatally ill Orwell when he proposed again, believing she could save him. As we know, she could not, and Orwell died shortly after the wedding, entrusting Sonia with the responsibility of his literary estate and the direct responsibility for enforcing his instructions that there should be no biography of him - a situation which caused her huge difficulties and an immense amount of stress for the rest of her life. There is, of course, more to Sonia Orwell's rather turbulent life than I have revealed here, but I shall leave the remainder for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

Although this biography is a brief one, it is a very readable and interesting one and Hilary Spurling does much to rescue Sonia Orwell from the accusations that have been made against her. Ms Spurling, who became friendly with Sonia Orwell in 1970 (when Spurling was writing her biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett) admits that Sonia was "driven by demons she could not fully control" and that her insecurity and over-use of alcohol released an aggression that made her many enemies; however, Hilary Spurling also tells us of Sonia's charm, of her generosity, and of her kindness to those in need, especially with regard to the elderly writer Jean Rhys who, almost forgotten after the success of her early novels, had been living in poverty and isolation before the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, and to whom Sonia was particularly kind and helpful. And what is especially interesting about this biography, is not just the life of Sonia Orwell, but the lives of the people who surrounded her and reading this book has made me keen to read (and reread) the biographies of some of the people mentioned, for example: Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton Burnett; Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma; Cyril Connolly: A Life; Marguerite Duras: A Life and Jean Rhys - all of which I have on my shelves and look forward to reading and reviewing soon.

4 Stars.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Since Hilary Spurling and Sonia Orwell became good friends, it adds warmth and first-hand knowledge to ..., 4 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell (Paperback)
Since Hilary Spurling and Sonia Orwell became good friends, it adds warmth and first-hand knowledge to the biography. It is beautifully written and eminently readable and enjoyable. It was also really interesting to read about all the personalities one heard about in the news at the time.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Widow Orwell, 25 Feb. 2013
By 
P. Ronayne "Pablo" (Liverpool UK) - See all my reviews
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Despite some fairly aggressive attacks on Orwell's Widow by biographers down the years Hilary Spurling has produced a sympathetic and well researched work that tries to put the record straight about Sonia Orwell. However, I'm not sure that she fully succeeds in turning things around for her; for me there are still some questions to be answered.

Sonia Brownell during the late 1930s became a kind of artistic groupie around writers and painters of the Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury set. Many actually painted her, enchanted by her peaches and cream beauty and obvious intelligence. Later she worked for Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson at 'Horizon' magazine where she proved to be more than just eye candy for visiting writers and associates, virtually running the office during and after World War 2.

She married George Orwell on his death bed at the end of 1949 just as the previously penniless author struck gold with the massive success of Animal Farm and with 1984 about to explode on the 1950s and beyond. Sonia was labelled a gold-digger by many for this seemingly odd act. I personally believe this to be unfair if not altogether untrue. What the author does develop is the fact that she may well have married Orwell on the rebound from a passionate love affair with the married French writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This may or may not be true yet later she married an openly gay man who also happened to be pretty wealthy. That marriage, somewhat predictably did not last and we are left wondering just what Sonia was all about.

My own view is that at times she embarked on certain lifestyle choices that left her feeling terribly guilty and sometimes suicidal. Her way of dealing with these issues was to make penance in some way to the needy, the ill and persecuted around her-perhaps a legacy of her Catholic upbringing. So Sonia seemed to swing between sinner (of sorts) and saint (of sorts) This is not a puritanical judgement, far from it, just an observation.

This argument may be re-enforced by looking at the physical changes in Sonia over a fairly short space of time. From the ravishing beauty on her last day at 'Horizon' to the chubby, bog-eyed and bewildered woman less than a decade later who hacked off all her hair. Obviously lifestyle, alcohol and loss all played its part and we see a woman on a long road of decline and confrontation. Its easy to feel sorry for her as her looks and sanity seem to depart rapidly. Maybe those who have been so critical over the years have been unfair and when she needed support most she should have got it. She didn't and ended up broke and bitter, dying at the relatively young age of 62. Perhaps her greatest achievement was bringing Orwell's essays, letters and other writings to a wider public. For this alone we should be grateful.
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The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling (Paperback - 5 May 2004)
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